February 27, 2007

Supreme Court's long-worded ways.

The Supreme Court always brings to my mind high erudition and sophistication. Not necessarily in a good sense of course. It is not difficult to discern some sort of political biases at work in controversial decisions however prolix they might be. These days of intense political partisanship seem to add fuel to the fire.

One such recent decision of the Supreme Court was in Philip Morris USA v. Williams. The issue at conflict was the $80 million punitive damages awarded to representatives of Williams by Oregon Court of Appeals. Supreme Court rejected this by a vote of 5-4. The crucial concern of the jury in Oregon was the damage caused by Philip Morris to nonparties to the litigation. They held that this was huge and indicated "reprehensible behavior". But the Supreme Court explicitly rejected this argument, saying that, "[a] punitive damage award based in part on a jury's desire to punish a defendant for harming nonparties amounts to a taking of the property from the defendant without due process".

The merits of this argument are not germane. But the verbose and confusing way the Court delivered its judgment is. This is very nicely explained in this article by Douglas W. Kmiec in Slate.

It seems that the majority opinion of the court held that it is fine for a jury to consider damages to nonparties in determining whether the behavior of the defendant was reprehensible, but it is not OK for them to use this damage in punishing the defendant. Kmiec sums this up nicely:
This is not an example of clarity. It is, instead, what happens when you're lucky enough to be in a position to delegate to others the implementation of unworkable rules. As the Oregon Supreme Court had already noted, if a jury cannot punish for harm to people who aren't part of the litigation, then it is difficult to see why it may consider that harm at all. How, asked Oregon, could a jury consider harm to others and yet withhold that consideration from the punishment calculus? It's a good question. The Supremes, however, answered with a rather paternalistic "just do it."

The two Bush appointees to the court, Roberts and Alito, both voted with the majority. Kmieck also explains how this goes against their conservative credentials.


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